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Couture meets the mass market

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.



Think of it as the fashion world’s way of “slumming it.” More and more high-end fashion designers are putting to their thousand-dollar designs on hold to design for the masses.

For instance, this month, British textile designer Celia Birtwell released a line of flowy blouses and dresses exclusively in Express stores, and this is a woman who has designed for The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, no less!

However, it seems that a small bump in price is unavoidable no matter the retailer. Celia Birtwell’s line at Express, ranging between $79 and $128, is slightly more expensive than the store’s regular fare.

While Birtwell’s designs may have spearheaded the London boho trend in the 1960s, she is by no means the first designer to broker a deal with a mass retail chain. Isaac Mizrahi, who became a fashion designer-cum-celebrity with the 1995 documentary Unzipped, led the way in 2003, teaming with Target to design a collection of women’s sportswear and accessories. His collection for Target quickly become a staple of the chain and even overshadowed the simultaneous release of his couture collection at Bergdorf Goodman.

Reassured by Mizrahi’s success with Target, a slew of designers followed, including legendary Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli (all for H&M), and Vera Wang (for Kohl’s). Even Gap, a brand notorious for its cookie-cutter style, is bringing in fresh blood in the form of 3.1 Philip Lim, among others, to revamp the classic white button down shirt.

However these designers were sure to perfect this transition in ways that Mizrahi did not. Sure, one way in which designers keep their work in high demand is by creating attractive, stylish clothes. However, high prices, and thus limiting their consumer base to a certain social status surely plays a part too in creating a desirable image for their brand.

What Mizrahi failed to do was ensure that “mass produced” did not turn into “commonplace.” His designs are available in almost every one of the 1,500 Target stores in the United States.

So without high prices, how did these designers manage to maintain an air of exclusivity around their designs? It seems that limited editions and geography are the two greatest tools at a designer’s disposal.

When Stella McCartney launched her collection for H&M in 2005, the collection was available in only 400 of the over 1,500 H&M stores worldwide. Viktor & Rolf took this to an even greater extent limiting the release of their line to 250 H&M stores. Both designers’ collections were in stores for only one season.

Even Target’s GO International label uses the “limited-time only” strategy to induce customers to buy and give the brand an air of rarity and inimitability. The label brings in international designers to create a collection, which will be available in Target stores for approximately two to three months. Past designers have included Jovovich-Hawk, Proenza Schouler and Alice Temperley.

However, it seems that all good things, limited-edition collections included, must come to an end. Mizrahi recently announced that he will be taking over as creative director of the Liz Claiborne brand, effectively ending his contract with Target.

Watching Mizrahi as he tries to disassociate himself from the common consumer brand will no doubt answer the question of whether there is life for designers after the mass market.